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Joe's best shot slipping away

With hands that jut at right angles from his arms and mild mental retardation, Joe Sanderson was assigned the most menial of tasks when he started his first paying job this spring at a nature center run by the Anne Arundel County schools. It was all anyone thought he could handle.

But then the determined 19-year-old surprised his boss, his job counselor and even his social worker. Within weeks, he had moved from filling salt shakers to guiding a cafeteria full of schoolchildren through lunch. People who care about Joe watched as his bitter frustration with his limitations gave way to a sense of possibility.

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But a story that seemed destined for a happy ending now has an uncertain one. At the end of this month, the funds his boss had scraped together for his modest paycheck will run out, sending Joe into a private-sector job market where employers have looked at his shrunken limbs and balked at hiring him.

"It will make me upset a little bit inside," Joe said before lunch one day last week, reflecting on the prospect of leaving the Arlington ECHO Outdoor Education Center, a leafy spot by the Severn River where instructors teach county schoolchildren about the environment. "Because I love this job. I love working with kids."

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For the first time, he says, he is in a place where children listen to, rather than tease, him. After Joe treated a cafeteria full of campers to his rendition of an 'N Sync song the other day, he was beside himself when they applauded. "I was almost crying, because I felt really touched."

The next day, the campers, who had gotten to know him over a week's worth of lunches, shot to their feet to sing him a song. It was "Friend Like Me," from the movie Aladdin. When the music stopped, Joe looked around at all the faces and said, "You know, that's true. I've never had a friend like you."

His plight is a familiar one for people with mild disabilities, capable enough to earn money in niche jobs but often lacking the skills to compete for full-time employment.

Those who lose most

"They are often a marginal group," says Cristine Marchand, executive director of The Arc of Maryland, an advocacy group for people with disabilities. "They're typically working in part-time or less-than-full-time service jobs. They're typically trying to pass as not having a disability and not always making it. When services and funding cuts happen, this is a group that really loses."

Joe's high school vocational coordinator, Melinda D. Spence, says that if Joe loses his job at the nature center, she will help him find work at a fast-food restaurant. But she worries that the pace and atmosphere of a fast-food counter will set back a self-confidence that has taken months to build.

Disfigured by a genetic disorder and abandoned by his parents at age 6, Joe has endured mockery and loneliness over his years in the public schools. Only last year did he decide to dispense with the health aide who helped him navigate his high school.

Joe came to the Arlington ECHO in Millersville in the fall, one of several special education students from Old Mill High School who volunteered there under a school vocational program. But in May, the center's director, Stephen G. Barry, did something he had never done before: He put a student on the payroll.

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There were no vacancies. But Barry patched together part-time hiring money and summer-camp funds to create a $6-an-hour, 20-hour-a-week position for Joe.

Risk that paid off

"Very honestly, we took a risk," Barry said. "I never in my greatest imagination thought he would be as successful as he has been. We hate to see it all lost, but that's the reality. I have the work for him and the opportunity for him, but not the money."

In a way, Barry says, Joe is the victim of his own success. He now greets students as they enter the cafeteria. He stands at the head of the room and gives instructions on setting tables and clearing trays. He leads the students in a moment of silence. He runs a game called "Waste Watchers," to highlight the amount of food the average person wastes. Those tasks had previously fallen to instructors or college interns.

But perhaps most important, Barry says, Joe "changes the climate" of the center, indirectly teaching children lessons of tolerance.

"He's been far more successful than anyone expected - so what do you do with him now?" Barry said in the busy cafeteria last week. "That's the predicament."

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In a time of lean school budgets, there is only so much the nature center can do, Barry says. Without full use of his arms, Joe would probably not qualify for a full-time kitchen job, even if one opened. He has learned to use his shoulders to nudge the dishwasher into motion, but without full use of his hands he cannot dispense food swiftly enough for a fast-moving lunch crowd.

Joe lives in a nearby apartment in Millersville with round-the-clock services for the disabled. Like many other students in special education, he is not likely to leave high school until he turns 21. A focus of counselors in the years before graduation is to lay the groundwork for students to find and hold jobs.

Joe says he has spent his modest paychecks on hip-hop CDs, a Superman drinking cup and trips to see such action movies as Bad Boys II. He is saving up for a Sony PlayStation 2. He dreams of having enough of his own money to go to Disney World in Florida.

New self-confidence

His first paying job has infused him with a self-assurance - and a blossoming wit - that those who have known him had not seen before. When a camper smiled and said, "Hey, Joe" the other day, Joe assumed a comic's poker face, glanced over his shoulder and cracked, "Who's Joe?"

His county social worker, Alex Sears, has spent the past few weeks making frantic phone calls to everyone from the governor on down for money to keep Joe at the nature center. The only "yes" came from a local businessman and his wife, who anonymously donated enough to carry him through August.

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For Joe, the job is more than just money in the pocket.

"He feels he's part of the community," says Sears, "that he's actually made it, that he's a wage-earning productive citizen." The schoolchildren who pass through call to him by name. The other cafeteria workers - three older women - kid around with him.

Last week, Joe summoned the confidence to sing the Back- street Boys song "Larger than Life" to a group of middle- and high-schoolers there for chorus camp.

As the pop hit began to thump from a boombox at the back of the cafeteria, Joe looked out at the 100 campers and asked them to be his backup singers.

"I'm dedicating this to everyone in the dining hall, because you guys have been so great to me," he said. "Just remember, in your heart, you can sing."


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